The first time I saw it, I was absolutely sure that Country Joe West blew the call. I mean, that's par for the course, right? The second time I saw, the third time, the fourth time, really the first dozen times I saw it, from every angle, I was convinced that Mookie Betts' glove was over the wall when it hit a fan's hand, and Country Joe West blew the call, and it should not have been ruled interference, and it was kind of a travesty.
I was wrong.
It isn't anybody's fault. There's no one to blame. But it was fan interference.
The rules don't always provide justice. Sometimes, all they provide is order.
Let's go over it step by step by step. It's the bottom of the first inning, one out, a man on base and the Red Sox have an early 2-0 lead. We're in Houston, and the scene is orange and loud.
Jose Altuve is at the plate.
Jose Altuve is awesome.
With a 2-1 count, Red Sox starter Rick Porcello throws a 90.8 mph fastball up and away from Altuve; it's not clear that it would be called a strike. Altuve hits it at 94.2 mph exit velocity, 34-degree angle. It is high and just about home run distance away; Statcast estimates that it will travel 332 feet if it goes untouched. It seems like Altuve has hit a wall-scraping home run.*
*The information we get now -- it's incredible.
Red Sox right fielder Mookie Betts takes off after the ball.
Mookie Betts is awesome.
Betts moves toward the wall. He doesn't have that far to run; with his speed, he has plenty of time to get to the ball. Without the wall, it would be an easy catch. But the key, he quickly realizes, will be how he plays the wall. Betts runs, and then as he gets to the warning track, he begins to take those small steps of a primed athlete preparing to take flight. He lifts off. With his knees bent, he's perhaps three feet off the ground. It seems as if he will make an amazing catch.
In the stands, four Astros fans watch the ball as it heads toward them.
Catching a home run ball is awesome.
One man reaches tentatively to his left, with his hands cupped close together, like a wide receiver trying to make an over-the-shoulder catch, but in the end, he will not be involved. Another puts his left hand on the railing and reaches over with his right; he's the one who makes the most concerted effort to get to the ball. In the end, he too will not be involved.
Then there are the two men in the middle, one wearing gray, the other orange. The man in the gray is in a better position to catch it -- the ball is hit right at him. He keeps his arms close to his chest and lifts his chin and closes his eyes as the ball is upon him. The man in the orange is more determined, he turns slightly to his right and puts his hands out there in an awkward but charming effort to catch it with a sort of clapping motion. Both seem to be at least aware of their place and are making efforts to not put their hands over the wall.
And then, in a blur, everything collides.
We can go into countless other details here, but there's really only one baseball question: Where does Betts' glove make contact with the fans' hands?
If the glove and the ball are not over the wall, if they're in the field of play, it's fan interference. That's what Country Joe West, the umpire, ruled. Altuve was called out.
If the glove or the ball are over the wall at contact -- in the stands and out of the field of play -- then it's not fan interference. Baseball went to replay to make that determination; they ruled that they could not rule, that replay was not conclusive enough to change Country Joe West's call. Altuve remained out.
So now we get into some talk about replay -- you know that I despise replay in sports for a dozen reasons. And one of those reasons is that different angles of replay tell different stories. From some angles, it seems pretty clear that Betts' glove was over the wall. From others, it's more of an open question. Each angle offers fuel to the people who see what they want to see. On Twitter, I saw a few dozen people who were ABSOLUTELY SURE that Betts' glove was/wasn't over the wall, 100 percent certain, there was no doubt, it wasn't even close, to argue any other way was ridiculous. Out of curiosity I looked into a few of the more assured accounts and saw something unsurprising but still funny and probably pretty indicative of the times we live in.
The people who were 100 percent sure it wasn't interference were Astros fans.
The people were 100 percent sure it was interference were Red Sox fans.
So that wasn't really helpful at all.
As mentioned, I was pretty darned certain that the contact was made in the stands but, liking the Red Sox and Astros equally, liking Altuve and Betts equally, being a strong believer that fans have no choice but to try to catch a ball when it's hit at them, I decided to look at it 500 times this morning. I took numerous screenshots and showed them to non-baseball fan family members for their opinions.
And again, as mentioned, I have now made a clear conclusion.
The fan's hand hit Betts' glove before it, or the ball, got into the stands. It was unintentional. It was just one of those fluke things. But it was interference.
Here's how I know.
Point 1: Betts was a good distance away from the wall when he made his jump.
This is super blurry, but this is Mookie Betts at takeoff:
As you can see, his left foot is a good, what, yard away from the wall? This is a key point, the one that close-up angles do not quite get: distance. If Betts was at the wall when he leaped, then yes, it would be very likely that his glove was over the wall at contact. But he's so far back when he's in the air ...
Point 2: His glove made contact with someone in the stands before the ball arrived.
Here are two screenshots that are an instant apart. Look at Betts' glove (again, apologies for their blurriness)
OK, see how in the first one, his glove is wide open. In the second one, it's beginning to close -- the reason is that his glove has already connected with an Astros fan. The ball is not even in that picture yet. Here's the full picture of that second one, so that you can see where the ball is.
This is where first contact was made. The ball is clearly not over the wall yet. Is his glove over the wall? It's so hard to see.
Point 3: Look at how far Betts' shoulder is from the wall.
Let's look at another angle, which I think is at just about the same millisecond as the photo above. This one is less blurry.
Look, this is SO close. I'm not going to tell you that there's 100 percent proof of anything. But there are some things that you can take from this photo. First, you can see that Betts makes contact NOT with the guy in orange who's reaching for the ball -- I saw an interview with that guy (he's from Atlanta, had come for the game, was heartbroken by what happened) -- but instead with the guy in gray.
Second, you can see how far away Betts' shoulder is from the wall. His arm is at a bit of an angle, but I don't see any way Mookie Betts' arm is long enough that, given where his shoulder is, his glove could have been in the stands.
And third: the guy in the gray is up against the wall -- closer to the wall than Betts -- and he's leaning forward, and his arms are out in front of him. We're talking a matter of inches here. But his arms are out there -- I feel pretty sure that he's ever so slightly out in the field of play. It's interference.
My biggest problem with replay is that it causes us to do exactly what I'm doing here, break down sports into minuscule fragments until they become unrecognizable. That fan didn't INTERFERE with the play in the true definition of that word; if we didn't want fans doing exactly what he did, there wouldn't even be a front row in the outfield stands. And by calling Altuve out, it seems to assume that Betts definitely would have made that crazy catch, an assumption that's pretty insane for a sport that won't even assume the double play.
And that brings us back to the beginning: Sometimes rules in sports are necessary, even if they're unsatisfying. It reminds me of the Kevin Bacon line in A Few Good Men: "I don't think your clients belong in jail, but I don't get to make that decision."
I don't think Altuve should have been called out, I don't think those fans should feel like they did anything wrong, and I don't think you can take away the very real possibility that Mookie Betts would have made that catch.
I don't get to make that decision. There's a rule. It was fan interference. As crazy as it sounds, Country Joe West got it right.
Addendum: There's an argument to be made, based on the rule, that judgment is involved here. The rule reads as follows:
"If spectator interference clearly prevents a fielder from catching a fly ball, the umpire shall declare the batter out."
Did the spectator CLEARLY prevent Betts from catching the ball? In the comment that MLB includes underneath the rule, the word "clearly" is replaced by "plainly": "Should a spectator reach out on the playing field side of the fence, railing or rope and plainly prevent the fielder from catching the ball, then the batsman should be called out."
My wasted hours of studying this play tell me that the spectator did reach out JUST on the playing field side of the wall. So I feel that part is solid. Did he "plainly" and "clearly" prevent Betts from making the catch? Is that a judgment call, or did the fan, by clearly and plainly hitting Betts' glove, meet the standards of the rule? My head hurts.